PHILADELPHIA — Imagine your worst travel nightmare and, chances are, lawyer Richard Atkins has heard an even more horrific story from one of his clients.
The travelers who call his office in downtown Philadelphia aren't upset about missed connections or grounded flights. Many of them are in jail in a country where they don't speak the language, don't understand the law and don't know what to do.
"What we try to do is get different legal systems to work together," said Atkins, founder of International Recoveries LLC, an advocacy agency working mainly with Americans incarcerated overseas and for foreign nationals jailed in the United States.
Twenty-three years after Atkins started the agency, he still takes calls from distraught spouses and parents of people who have been incarcerated, like Sherry Aude of Lancaster, Calif.
Her son Erik Aude, an aspiring actor, is a year into a seven-year sentence in a Pakistani prison for drug smuggling after he was arrested last year at the Islamabad airport with nearly 8 pounds of opium in his suitcase.
Sherry Aude said her son was duped into thinking he was importing leather goods. The 22-year-old actor, who had a small role in "Dude, Where's My Car?", could have been sentenced to die by hanging.
Since his incarceration, Erik has lost 40 pounds, has been beaten by fellow prisoners — many of them jailed Taliban and al-Qaida — and was put in 24-hour lockup for his safety, his mother said. His life has been threatened and he was last accosted two days after the Iraq war broke out, his mother said.
She put her house up for sale to pay a lawyer in Pakistan $18,000 to represent her son, but she fears his appeals will be delayed until the house is sold.
"My finances are in a state of ruin," she said. "I'm totally bewildered and frustrated because I'm here in California and I'm trying to find somebody during a war to go to court in Pakistan."
Her son is one of about 2,500 Americans detained in foreign jails, according to the State Department, but Atkins believes about four times that number are apprehended on criminal violations every year.
"There are so many cases we simply never see," Atkins said. "Some people bribe their way out, some are released before the embassy gets word of it, some are released and don't report it to the embassy."
Another of Atkins' clients, a Bryn Mawr College student, was arrested during an economic summit in Genoa, Italy. She was with a street theater group that police said conspired with violent anarchists known as Black Bloc, who were blamed for rioting. Police evidence against her was a black bra in her suitcase and a black spare tire in the trunk of her car.
Susanna Thomas was released three weeks after her arrest but still faces trial — and a potential 15-year jail term.
In another case, a man preparing to fly from Thailand back to the United States was arrested in the airport for tearing up Thai currency — an action the government said defiled the image of the king, whose face was on the bills. Charges were dropped after Atkins set up psychological evaluations by American and Thai doctors.
For nearly 30 years, Atkins has worked with private, state and federal organizations to promote international treaties that allow those arrested overseas to serve their time in their home countries.
He gets many client referrals from Amnesty International, but he also works on retainer fee for insurance companies and credit card firms that help their customers out of travel trouble, and he works for groups bringing au pairs, exchange students or camp counselors to the United States.
He's had cases where people were arrested for carrying prescription drugs, photographing military personnel or attending large celebrations. However, he warns that even a car accident can lead to prison, especially if there is a serious injury. Accident investigations can take months, and even people who are just passengers in a crash can be detained.
His advice to people traveling abroad: Have a cell phone, get travel insurance and check online newspapers in the country you're planning to visit to make sure problems aren't brewing.
"Americans used to be almost cavalier when they traveled," he said. "Since Sept. 11, people are more concerned."